The 50th Anniversary Of “Let It Bleed” And The Moment The ’70s Began

It is the hoariest cliche of pop culture to designate the Altamont Free Concert, held on December 6th 1969, as the “End of the 1960s.”

Sure, it’s true that, from a cultural standpoint, the ’70s began that month, so hot to get on with it that the border was crossed prior to the odometer rolling over at midnight on New Year’s Eve. But Altamont was two weeks too soon: the ’70s began on December 20th, 1969 when the Rolling Stones’ Let It Bleed eclipsed the Beatles’ Abbey Road as the #1 album on the British charts. The Beatles would forever be a ’60s band, while the Stones set the course for the ’70s.

God knows we love Abbey Road, as we just finished saying when that album celebrated its 50th birthday with a skillful facelift from Giles Martin. The Beatles’ culmination, if not literally their last word, it was certainly the capstone of their all-too-brief moment, unsurpassed a half century later.

A year ago, the 50th anniversary of Beggars Banquet came hard on the heels of the restoration of The Beatles (the White Album), and now we have a remastering and big box set of Let It Bleed on vinyl and CDs following Abbey Road‘s refurbishment. I’m willing to say that great as the Beatles’ exit opus was, your excitement should be focused on their friendly London rivals. Abbey Road was the last great album of the ’60s, but Let It Bleed was the first great album of the ’70s.

Let’s check the calendar and look at some dates. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” arguably the greatest rock’n’roll song of all time and certainly the kickoff to the Stones’ Golden Era — their magnificent four-year run of singles and five albums, all but the live one produced by Jimmy Miller — was released on May 24th, 1968. Beggars Banquet came out on December 6th, just over six months later.

Exactly one year after the release of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” on May 24th 1969, the Stones were back in the studio with a brand new lead guitarist, Mick Taylor. Three weeks later they officially fired Brian Jones, who was found dead in his pool on July 3rd. One day later, on the 4th of July, “Honky Tonk Women” came out, with lead licks by Taylor and a steaming horn section powering the refrain.

On the 5th of July, the Stones played Hyde Park, a free concert in honor of Jones. It was their first real concert since 1967 (their 1968 TV special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus doesn’t really count), and they’d already announced a U.S. tour to take place that fall — a tour that, you might say, hasn’t ended five decades later.

There’s a second tight cluster of 1969 dates to consider. In early December, the Stones were coming off their successful U.S. tour in which they had started being called (okay, by Sam Cutler, their tour manager who introduced them) “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world.” The final show was to be a free concert at the Altamont Raceway Park near San Francisco, which they’d been mau maued into putting on by criticism of their tour’s expensive, $6-dollar tickets (!). But just before Altamont, the Stones flew cross country for a recording session. Mick and Keith had two songs they wanted to get down on tape.

On December 2nd, they arrived at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in Northern Alabama and over the next three days recorded “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses,” two mainstays of their 1970s’ success. On December 5th, Let It Bleed was released, containing “Gimme Shelter,” “Live With Me,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which have been, off and on, staples of their live shows ever since.

By December 6th — the day that Woodstock Nation’s Shangri-La conceit was beaten to a pulp by the Hells Angels and their pool cues — Let It Bleed was one-day old. Fifty years later, we finally get to hear it sounding its very best.

From the moment “Gimme Shelter” twinkles to life through your speakers or headphones, you can tell it sounds better than ever. The space between the instruments, the warmth of the sound, the depth of the bass, the rollicking, bluesy piano played by Nicky Hopkins have about the same transformative effect on a song we’ve heard a zillion times as Giles Martin’s magic on last year’s remix of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” — the most familiar of songs is decidedly new.

“Gimme Shelter,” the best album opener of all time, vies with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for the greatest rock’n’roll song ever, and hearing it on this reissue is a reminder that the two singles from Golden Era Stones that were never on a real album deserve their remix transformation as well. When can we hear an improved version of “Honky Tonk Women” too?

Keith Richards’ magnificent bass line on “Live With Me” rumbles as never before. On this first Stones song to feature Bobby Keys on sax, with both Mick Taylor and Nicky Hopkins playing (the latter stepping back for Leon Russell on a few bars), we have a portent of the ’71-’73 touring Stones, who really were the Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the world. It’s all beginning to gel here, everything coming together.

Our favorite Jagger-Richards lyrics of all time come in “Monkey Man”:

“Yes, I’m a sack of broken eggs
I always have an unmade bed
Don’t you?

Well, I hope we’re not too messianic
Or a trifle too satanic
We love to play the blues

And they did, even if it was the psychedelic space blues of “Midnight Rambler.”

On Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street, the Stones gathered momentum for a run that has propelled them into late middle age and beyond. This remix of the second of those albums is of a piece with the other remixes of these classics released over the past decade. From the kickoff single in May 1968 to Exile On Main Street almost exactly four years later, the classic Stones lineup — with Nicky Hopkins, and eventually Bobby Keys and Jim Price, fully integrated in the sound — the band jettisoned the ’60s behind them. On album at least, they’ve never again had such an impact. That’s okay, no one else has either.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: